The Belgian Connection and Europe’s Counterterrorism Failure
Karina Piser |Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015
As French police and detectives tried to make sense of the coordinated attacks that rocked Paris on Friday, eyewitnesses reported to have seen black-clad men emerging from cars with Belgian license plates. That led detectives to search a car with foreign license plates parked near the Bataclan theater, where at least 89 concertgoers were murdered. Upon searching the car, they found a discarded parking ticket, issued in Molenbeek, an impoverished district of Brussels.
|A candlelight vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks, Molenbeek,|
Belgium, Nov. 18, 2015
This is not the first time that Belgium has made news as a source of radicals. In recent years, it has become Europe’s largest per capita exporter of fighters to Syria and Iraq: Official figures indicate that more than 350 Belgians—unofficial research points to more than 500—have gone to Syria from a country of 11 million.
The majority of these jihadis have originated in Brussels. Molenbeek, specifically, has been linked to a slew of radicals, including one of the terrorists behind the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Mehdi Nemmouche, the Frenchman who killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May, reportedly bought his weapons there. Ayoub El Khazzani, who in August attempted to carry out an attack on a train from Brussels to Paris, had also lived in Belgium.
Many attribute this worrying trend to the deep rivalries between Belgium’s Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south. Critics contend that, with an already fragile social fabric, the country has struggled for decades to formulate an effective strategy for integrating migrants, many of whom are Muslim. Belgium was the first European country to ban the full veil, stoking outcry from human rights groups and undoubtedly doing little to assuage feelings of alienation among its Muslim residents.
Whatever the cause, the jihadi presence in Belgium is real, and authorities have struggled to contain it for years. In February, a court in Antwerp found 45 members of Sharia4Belgium, a radical Salafi organization, guilty of terrorism-related offenses, including recruiting Belgians for militant groups like the Islamic State; Sharia4Belgium’s leader, Fouad Belkacem, received a 12-year prison sentence.
Eerily foreshadowing the Paris attacks, Belgian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Jan Jambon discussed the cracks in Belgium’s security apparatus at a Politico event on Nov. 10. Although authorities have stepped up counterterrorism measures and successfully foiled an attack in January in the city of Verviers, Jambon pointed to Brussels’ fragmented administration as a cause for concern. “Brussels is a relatively small city, 1.2 million,” he said at the event. “And yet we have six police departments. Nineteen different municipalities. New York is a city of 11 million. How many police departments do they have? One.”
Belgium’s connection to the Paris attacks has further enflamed critics of Europe’s open borders, such as the head of France’s right-wing National Front party, Marine Le Pen. Friday’s events have also encouraged some European politicians—and American ones, as well—to reconsider welcoming refugees from Muslim countries.
But Jytte Klausen, a professor at Brandeis University and an affiliate at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, argues that open borders are hardly to blame for the two terrorist attacks Paris has witnessed this year. Writing in Foreign Affairs, she characterized open borders as an “immutable fact of Europe.” The real problem, instead, “is the failure to coordinate” across those borders. Even before Europe was confronted with unprecedented flows of migrants, she noted, “Police and other officials responsible for tracking terrorists had already complained that the absence of routine information sharing or a Europe-wide registry of suspected radicals made their job impossible.”
Furthermore, Klausen wrote, European intelligence services, despite much success with electronic surveillance, have yet to reckon with “impenetrable online communication,” as many radical groups use encrypted files or video games to communicate. Jambon echoed this point at the Politico event, citing PlayStation 4 as the most difficult platform to intercept. But Klausen added that European counterterrorism strategy has disproportionately emphasized online surveillance, ignoring that terrorists “organize in real life” as well.
In an interview with NBC News, Claude Moniquet, a former Belgian intelligence officer and CEO of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, described Molenbeek’s seeming immunity to counterterrorism efforts as both a social and political failure. “They have been too nice, too tolerant, too bland,” he said in reference to officials’ lax policy on extremism. Moniquet also noted that, while Belgium is a diverse country, Molenbeek is quite homogeneous—80 to 90 percent of its residents are Muslim. That isolation, combined with the community’s particularly high levels of poverty and unemployment compared to the rest of Brussels, creates an environment ripe for extremism and terrorist recruitment.
But while those conditions seem to substantiate the claims of xenophobes, Molenbeek isn’t, and doesn’t have to become, the terrorist haven many have described it as since Friday’s attacks. The district has a middle-class community and is gentrifying. But many of its residents still feel left behind, and youth employment exceeds 30 percent.
The Belgian connection to the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris, and to previous terrorist attacks, points at least in part to some of these social and political failures. And that narrative—of sidelined Muslim communities in European cities, easily swept up in calls for radicalism—is becoming an increasingly common feature of Europe today, be it in Brussels, Paris or London. In the wake of the Paris attacks, and the likely hard-line security measures they will inspire, officials and policymakers shouldn’t overlook the role of social marginalization in fueling extremism.
Karina Piser is an associate editor at World Politics Review.